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Credit: Sophie Williams

Growing up in the Hertfordshire countryside, it wasn’t easy for Fred Roberts to find what he was looking for. A classically trained pianist, the 20-year-old gravitated towards music and instruments. It wasn’t until he began filming covers of artists that he realised a career in music was an option for him. 

Now, years later, Roberts is releasing his anthemic summer banger Runaway. With his name on the rise and more music on the way, the singer-songwriter has rapidly been adjusting to his new reality. In fact, the artist has just travelled from a meeting in Marylebone where he and his team have been brainstorming his big plans. “We’ve been plotting how to navigate the next few months,” he says. “I’m excited but it’s a weird landscape to navigate when I’m so used to writing in a studio and that’s what I’ve gotten used to. That used to be terrifying but now I’m adjusting to the next stage of being an artist. It’s all very exciting and I feel very fortunate.”

As Roberts sets up his next steps, he’s begun musing on how he wants his music to connect to his audience. Growing up, he didn’t “see himself” in the industry, as an openly out gay pop artist, and hopes his heartfelt storytelling can help bridge the gap. So, with a message to share in his music, we caught up with the rising act in London to hear more about his new single, Runaway, and how he hopes his heartbreak will bring people together. 

Fred, hello! How have you been?

Good! I’ve just released the first single and the reception has been amazing. Had a bit of a weird week last week adjusting to everything. I’ve been working on music for so long. This is my first single to get out in the world. I feel happy to finally have it out.

You appeared in X Factor: The Band in 2019, but how did you get your start as a musician?

I’ve always been into music and that was not a question. I went on X Factor but, before that, I did all my grades through piano, the violin and I sang other people’s music. I don’t think it hit me until I saw YouTube covers and that era of social media. I put two and two together – my classical training as a pianist – but when I figured out that the marriage of singing in a choir at school and the keys, it was a revelation. Going back to your question, I got into it because it was a summary of everything I love doing and it was like a happy accident. I kind of fell into it in a very nice way.

How did that industry experience prepare you for being a solo artist?

It was a massive learning experience and something I’m very grateful for because it was my first exposure to the industry. I didn’t have any connections and X Factor, when I was growing up, there was where you go. It was such a big mainstream thing. I was found on Instagram and they approached me and I was at a point in my life where I knew I wanted to do music and I didn’t know how to. It just so happened that year was The Band version of X Factor and this was a thing that might get me where I want to be. Going into it, I didn’t think I was going to get past the audition stages. I got through and put into the band and it was only two weeks. It was a very condensed version of the show. It was a whirlwind of an experience.

Did you take any lessons away from that?

Being in an environment like that definitely teaches you what you don’t like. The X Factor lands itself in a very pop mainstream world. Maybe to be more explorative, rather than latching onto that pop.

Not being able to see yourself in the music scene, did you feel this on an identity level too?

I think a bit of both. It stems from insecurities of not thinking you’re good enough. You’re constantly comparing yourself and everyone goes through that. I went to Reading Festival in 2019 and I hadn’t been able to see myself before and that was like a physical embodiment of music.

The artists that people listened to when I was in primary school and secondary school was Justin Bieber was very straight. It was selling a certain narrative that I didn’t identify with and it wasn’t until I discovered Troye Sivan. I saw him and the way he presents himself and that was something I hadn’t seen before. I do have a strong connection to that moment. It wasn’t a big light bulb moment but it was like seeing a mirror. Then, it was the gradual progression building from there.

What’s your favourite music memory?

It was the first time I saw Troye Sivan live. I bawled my eyes. You have moments in your life that shift your perspective on everything. Seeing him online is one thing, but seeing him in real life and singing the songs that I connected with was like an amazing moment. I went to an all-boys school and going to a Troye Sivan concert was not a cool thing to do. We went to London and it was like this big thing. That’s why concerts are amazing places because it brings together a very specific, accepting community which is magical. 

What was your experience at an all-boys like?

For context, I’m aware that my upbringing was privileged. I went to a very good school. It’s that whole secondary school journey of being a gay man at an all-boys school that focuses on rugby. Navigating that space is challenging. Even going back to sex education it’s straight. I remember my science teacher clicking on a gay version of sex education and clicking off it. It was a progression of going through school, learning about myself in a secret way and hiding that. I’ve written a lot of music about it and I’m very grateful for the learning experience. It wasn’t the most accepting but it wasn’t the most damaging. I was quite lucky in that way. There were some good days and some bad days.

You’ve spoken about wanting your music to connect audiences and listeners. How are you hoping it does that?

It was reassuring for me that there was someone else that had been through it and come out the other side. I’m in a good place now. When you’re in an environment and you’re trapped in it, you think that that’s the be all and end all. I know that when I was in school, I thought that this was gonna last forever. But, you suddenly realise that people are interesting and different. 

So, you have your new single Runaway out now. How did that track come to be?

I wrote my first song in lockdown. I had written stories and poems but I’d never put music to the words. I started writing in my room and was lucky enough to work with a writer who introduced me to my current producer. We worked on it in Strongroom in Shoreditch. I was saying goodbyes to my friends at uni and there was this person in my life that had a big impact on me growing up and definitely shaped the way I am today. It’s a song about forgiveness and overcoming resentment. Runaway came from me saying I saw you and I don’t hate you. It’s also laced with the fear of that and what happens when you see someone who reminds you of your past and reminds you of that massive part of you. But, at the end of the day, I wanted it to be a positive, uplifting song. 

What else do you have in store for us?

Runaway is a very face-value song. What happens in Runaway is what happens but there are parts that are blown up for storytelling. I’ve only released one song, but I’ve got another song called Rewing which is about wanting to rewind time. The song is detailed with instances of when I saw him, but the lyrics are “I when I saw him kiss her” and it’s about the nostalgia of not wanting bad things to end and looking back in a positive light. 

Runaway paints a very clear image of your creative identity about you as an artist. You’ve said you wanted to create an optimistic sound. Is that how you envision your genre? 

I consider my music quite retrospective. The way I started writing, and I still do, is by looking at my past and unpicking it and telling the stories of that time. I think it’s important I’ve got sad songs that are going to break your heart because that’s how they connect. Even with these sad songs, there’s an importance of seeing myself in a good place. There’s a power in optimism and leading with Runaway it’s probably my most optimistic track. It only gets darker from here! 

We always love a sad hit… 

Well, I’m going to LA soon to work on a new song and it’s called Object Of Desire. It’s a bit more like The Strokes but it’s stripped back and got that atmosphere. It’s not minimalist music and is very specific and decisive with what I want to say. 

After the single, going to LA and working on new music. What’s your next big industry goal? 

I have so many good and bad memories of that time in my life at Reading and Leeds. I think that would be a massive full circle. I hope that one day I get to play it. I haven’t played any shows yet. I’ve written the music in the studio and I started during locked down when shows when a thing and I haven’t been able to do that. I’ve been rehearsing for a show that doesn’t exist so I’m ready. It’s quite a small goal. But if there are any amount of people that want to come to my first gig, that’s the big moment.

Fred Roberts’ new single Runaway is available to buy and stream now.